In this excerpt, Somer, one of the protagonists in Seeds, recounts an experience he had in Alaska:
Polar bears are not new to Somer. He encountered those years ago, on the oil rig in Alaska where bear cages were set around the camp.
Shortly after his arrival, one of the roughnecks sat with him in the canteen.
“Are you an orphan?” he asked.
Somer said nothing.
“Up here, you can spot guys who just got out of jail. Especially ones who’ve been in a long time,” the roughneck continued. “Shirts and pants a decade out of style. Now, the fellows avoiding jail — everything on their backs is mismatched, whatever they snatch before jumping out the bathroom window. Orphans, on the other hand, they arrive with two of everything. Two shirts, two pairs of pants, two white undershirts. Like army issue. Like you.”
The polar bear cages weren’t for the bears; they were for the men. If you saw a bear, you jumped into one of the cages and blew your whistle, waited it out until somebody came along to shoo away the animal. Or kill it.
First day on the rig, Somer spotted the head of a bear poking out from behind a shipping container. He ran to the nearest cage and grasped the latch with one hand, retrieving the whistle from his pocket with the other. The whistle dropped to the ground and he spent a few more seconds poking through the snow for it with his fingertips before getting inside. Clogged with snow, the whistle didn’t work. When he looked around for the bear, a couple of roughnecks hooted at him in the yard. One of them waved a stuffed bear head on a long pole toward the cage.
You don’t do two things at once, they said, after having their laugh. You open the latch first. Don’t waste time putting lipstick on your mouth, girlie. You get in the cage and close the door behind you. Then you pull out your whistle. Those ten seconds you fumbled on the ground could have cost a lassie like you her pretty face. Lucky you got away with just wetting your panties.
It was a lesson Somer never forgot.
In this excerpt: Aphra’s mother was a book reviewer who entertained many publishers and writers at her dinner table:
She’d always called her father Beverley. Never Father or Papa. Aseneth, on the other hand, was Mother. Mother believed that affection within a family was common; kisses were only for the cheeks of the literati she collected for her dinner parties. Aseneth’s reviews of new books were always the last to appear in the London papers, waiting until all her colleagues had passed judgement before knighting the favoured authors with her pen. Claiming always that she never reviewed a book she didn’t like. That was a review in itself, she asserted. Her reviews were devoid of depth or originality, glibly paraphrasing what the other critics had already written. She had an innate understanding of the power of the quote, compressing everything written by the other critics into the Holy Grail of literary endorsement, the one-line sell. For decades, Aseneth’s bon mots graced the covers of second printings and expensive ads in the weekend book sections of the papers.
No publisher ever refused an invitation to the Abrams’ dinner table. The invitation was always for two. The publishers arrived with their writers — cherished children — never wives, and like most children, the authors’ attendance was reluctant. Nevertheless, they all showed up in those years. Waugh, Colding, Amis, Murdoch, Salinger, Mailer, and even Orwell put in a brief appearance weeks before his young death.
When Aphra returned to England after the death of her husband Nigel, the literary children were now rebellious teens, arriving at her parents’ door unannounced with girls introduced as au pairs hanging off their arms. They raided the liquor cabinets, pissed on the rose bushes, left behind water rings on the mahogany tables, bills for long distance calls and half-finished manuscripts. Pubertal hormones made them say things, forgotten when they reached adulthood.
“Aseneth, there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. You might want to use more than your usual ten in the next review.”
“Aseneth, you’re living proof that Roget’s needs an update. Surely, a book can be something other than brilliant, dazzling or radiant.”
The few literary teens who grew into adulthood and accepted Aseneth’s summons after she was retired from The Times, did so out of honour and respect, embarrassed by her insistence on maintaining a distance of two metres between herself and her guests, aiming kisses across the room instead of planting them on their cheeks. Golden-hued kerchiefs draped over lamps muted the furrows that had appeared above her brow and beneath her lips. Step too close and she blew smoke from her cigarillo into their faces. Beverley’s rat-a-tat snores at the other end of the table, a crescendo like an over-wound clock striking the hour. Time for the guests to go home, although it was not yet eleven in the evening.
Autumn arrives abruptly in Copenhagen, not like the leisurely onset we enjoyed growing up in Sydney. There are no warnings in Denmark, not like the flare of colours on the leaves of the maple trees around Cape Breton, followed by the long sleep of winter to follow.
I often emerge from my winter somnolence a season out of beat to greet a wasted spring long fled.
Like a wasp in winter, awakened by the teasing promise of a sunny day, called forth to greet the spring while the chill winds of February temporarily part their drapes of bitter cold. The wasp bastes its wings, and at the moment of virgin flight, the sun sets and February snickers as the eager and premature wasp perishes within a shroud of frost.
I am like that wasp, only it is autumn and not winter. All the inhibited energy that nourished me through a lazy and indifferent spring and summer siesta wants to break free. Around me, the people who populate my days grumble and pull their collars around their necks, guarding against the bite of the night as darkness uncoils day by day like a long black snake. Already, some of my staff at the restaurant are sniffling with premature colds, dragging their feet around the kitchen.
But autumn has always been a time of renewal for me. I look forward to this season to get busy with life. As if the darkening days are horse blinders, forcing me to go forth, onward, not to be distracted by the lethargy along the sidelines. I grasp it and sally forth to take a chance, to try new ideas. Like this journal, allowing me to find the courage within its pages to remember and finish what I need to say. Before the winter settles in and I forget. Before the wasp closes its wings, deaf to the world around it.
The Komodo Dragon and Other Stories
(from title story The Komodo Dragon)
“Now it doesn’t stop snowing in our end of the world. Believe you me this is true. It doesn’t stop snowing. It was a couple weeks after what I’ve been telling you and it’d been snowing for days, not heavy, but regular. My husband drives real slow in the snow, the roads are treacherous. Now on this night he had to park the car ‘bout a block down the road ‘cause the plough had been ‘round and filled in our driveway.
“He locked her up and started to walk home when he sees some tracks in the snow on the sidewalk. Two sets of tracks he sees and as he does his arithmetic he looked up the street and sees the light still burning over the door of the Bannerons. It’s been burning day and night for two weeks now, since Mr. Banneron disappeared. My husband gets the chills going up his spine. He looked down at those tracks and sees that one is a man and the other is a dog. No ifs, ands, or buts ‘bout it. Fresh tracks in the snow and those dog prints were trailing the man’s by a good four feet. Same as that Labrador used to trail Mr. Banneron. I tell you, my husband was some unnerved. He isn’t one to go looking for the man with a crooked foot where he isn’t to be found and he isn’t one to go telling ghost yarns. But he saw them tracks, fresh tracks at ten in the evening. A man and a dog. So he’s some excited waltzing through our door that night and he brings the chill with him when he tells me his story. I don’t dare to look out the window on the landing that night ‘cause I don’t want to see something that might not be there.
(from The Good Walkers)
On the charter flight to Venice, Abigail thought again of her mother. Of them. Considering the moment in the relationship between mother and daughter when the child reached the age her mother had been when she was born. Like days and nights of equal length, it was an equinox that occurred once in a lifetime.
Abigail was thirty-three. Her mother was forty-two when she was born. She would have to wait nine years before they reached their equinox. Maybe then, woman-to-woman, her mother would stop patronizing her and reminding her that no matter how well she succeeded in life, there was always another girl out there who was better or smarter. Then, adding to the list when she married the first time — prettier. Or younger, when she married for the second time. But her mother was seventy-five years old and she could die before their equinox and Abigail would linger in a purgatory of infancy.
(from The Epistle)
We ate a spartan lunch of Campbell’s tomato soup. My mother forgot to crush the crackers and she had mixed the soup with water rather than milk because she hadn’t collected the milk from the back step. Two ringlets of hair had come loose from behind her ears. They dangled precariously above the bowl of soup as she dipped her spoon.
She pushed her half-empty bowl away from her. I didn’t like water-mixed soup. It tasted of the tin can.
“Stop daydreaming, Henry, and eat up.” I was upset by the sharpness of her voice. There was no way I could continue eating.
“I’m sorry,” she said. And she was.
“Daydreams are not such a bad thing, Henry. I have them myself. You get your idleness from my side of the family. From my father,” she was quick to add, before I could pucker my lips in disbelief. I didn’t remember my grandfather, and granny had never struck me as a person who dreamt about anything.
“I think daydreams are what keep us on this side of the bend, Henry. Not over, not under. But safe. And have you noticed, that you only discover you’re daydreaming when you’re finished? Then they slip away. I’ve often thought about keeping a pen in my pocket to jot down some of my daydreams, but I don’t think it would work. Like trying to peel a reflection off the face of a mirror.”